Winter Solstice Yoga Practices
Winter Solstice is a time of digging into the darkness of the shortest day of the year and experiencing a PAUSE and a STILLNESS. And then the Earth starts titling back toward the LIGHT (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).
In a world before electronics and artificial light, our ancestors must have been much more attuned to the fact that the days were shorter. They must have lit candles in the long evenings, gone to bed earlier and settled into a rhythm with nature’s passivity. Maybe they wondered if the sun would ever return.
I think we still feel this time of SLOWING DOWN, even in the modern world. When it’s dark at 5pm, we kind of want to hibernate, be cozy, and get quiet.
The Solstice is an opportunity for our yoga practice to feed this sync up with nature and to align ourselves more fully with all of creation. To press pause and experience a that moment of stillness, knowing that the cycle will continue and the light will return.
One of the traditions that yogis practice is 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar A, or the classic Sun Salutation. That may sound just a little bit crazy and over the top. But here’s a little bit about the background behind the tradition, and some ideas you might incorporate into your Solstice practices.
108 is known as an auspicious number. In numerology, 108 turns into itself (1+0+8 = 9. And 9 is a number that always returns to itself 9×2 = 18 and 1+8=9; 9×3=27 and 2+7=9, and so on. Also 9 divided by 3 = 3, and the number 3 shows up across many religions and cultures, for instance the Trinity; the 3 cycles of creation – creation, maintenance, dissolution; etc.).
But 108 appears in many cultures and even in nature. For example:
- 108 beads on a mala
- 108 beads on a rosary
- 108 Upanishads (sacred texts of India)
- 108 nadis (energy lines) that connect back to the heart chakra
- 108 degrees is the internal temperature at which the human body’s vital organs begin to fail from overheating
- The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters
- 108 stitches on a baseball
- The Sarsen Circle of Stonehenge (which aligns with sunset on Winter Solstice) is 108 feet in diameter
There are 108 steps in many Buddhist temples.
And if you’re from St. John’s, Newfoundland in Eastern Canada (where my husband is from and where we lived for 13 years), you’ll likely be familiar with the Signal Hill hike. Remember that last set up steps up to the top of Signal Hill? Guess how many steps there are? Yep…108.
Why Practice Sun Salutations?
When we move through the Surya Namaskar A series of postures, we are offering up a greeting to the sun from a place of humility.
Surya means “Sun” and Namaskar means “salutation.” The sun is an always-present source of light and life that is there for us to sustain us, even when we don’t see it (behind clouds or as our place on earth is tilted or rotated away from it).
In the Sun Salutation series, we reach up toward the sun, then we bow forward, and the movements from there are always alternating versions of this LIFT outward and up and then this BOW inward. It mimics the ups and downs of our lives, and also the openings and closings of nature.
And through it all, the BREATH sustains us.
The breath is like the sun: always present, even when we are not aware of it. Each movement in the Surya Namaskar series follows the movement of the breath. As we inhale, we reach the arms up toward the sky. As we exhale, we fold forward into a standing forward bend. And so on.
So this breath-based series of movements celebrates LIGHT and the constancy of that light at the time of the Winter Solstice.
By putting intention and attention on the light, there is hope that the light will return.
Yoga for the Solstice
This year, I’m going to be practicing (a version of) 108 Sun Salutations as part of my own personal Winter Solstice yoga practice.
To go through the entire practice of 108 Surya Namaskar A’s takes about 2.5 to 3 hours. I have practiced this a number of times before, and it is quite something. I have experienced it as a led practice where a number of teachers trade off teaching 12 Sun Salutations and then pass it off to the next teacher.
But my favorite way to practice it is just as my own personal ritual, or with just my sister as company. One year, Linsey and I practiced 108 Surya A’s while in Florida on a family vacation for the holidays. We practiced outside on the patio, soaking up the sun. That might have been my favorite. Here we are, basking in the glow of our post-practice.
But I’ve also practice in my living room, watching it snow outside.
This year, I’ll practice at home in my home practice space, my bedroom, and it will be what it is.
Each time I go through the ritual, it’s a bit different, and I plan on taking quite a modified version of the 108 Sun Salutation practice to make sure I take care of my body and enjoy it. I do, after all, want to come back to my mat the next day and be able to move.
Tips for Winter Solstice Yoga:
If you’re game to take on Winter Solstice yoga practice, read on.
Remember, the number 108 can be split into other meaningful numbers (like 9 or 12 or 3 or 1), so keep that in mind as you design your practice.
1. Get familiar with the pattern of the Surya Namaskar A series
If this practice is new to you, or you want a little refresher, go and practice along with these two videos to get you going. These videos are free…you just need to create an account on my online class library, sign up for the FREE Foundations of Flow product, and you’ll be good to go:
2. Pace yourself and modify a LOT.
The first time I did this practice, I was a bit sore…you’ll feel it! It’s like a marathon that way. I mostly felt it in my legs, which I didn’t expect. Your body may react differently than mine did. There’s a lot of stepping back and forward. Jumping is a “thing” that you can do or not do, as always, and I certainly don’t recommend doing ALL the Chaturangas.
Luckily, Sun Salutations are VERY modifiable and you must PACE YOURSELF. Ways to modify for sustenance (and fun) include:
- Replace a traditional vinyasa with a Cow/Cat on hands and knees
- Take Child’s Pose in place of a vinyasa
- Do 10 really slowly
- Do 10 more quickly!
- Bend knees in forward folds and Downdogs
- Do 10 with fingers spread wide like sun rays
- Do 10 as a Moon salutation
- Try to alternate the foot your stepping back and forward so you even out (this is so hard!)
- Practice 10 rounds of a Reclined Sun Salutation
Here are some videos that can support you in finding some ways to modify and ENJOY the practice:
3. Find a way to keep track that works for you.
How do you keep track??? Well, you just count. You have to stay present. I like to turn my mat in a different direction (North, West, South, East) every 27 repetitions to change my perspective and to stay focused.
Using mala beads isn’t really a practical option, since you’ll be using your hands a lot. But of course, another practice is to chant AUM or another mantra 108 times in place of the Sun Saluation practice, in which case you would certainly use the mala beads to mark your place for each repetition of the mantra.
4. Turn on some music and just go.
I am lazy when it comes to making playlists, and I love Spotify. Check out this 108 Sun Salutations playlist! I’m listening to it right now as I write this!
5. End your practice in the restorative Stonehenge posture
In honor of Stonehenge’s 108-foot diameter and the Winter Solstice sunset here, assume a posture to celebrate that alignment of nature and humanity.
You can use this posture in place of Savasana (final relaxation), or you can simply do just THIS on it’s own.
Do what works for your body. Honor it and just BREATHE.
Be guided through the setup of Stonehenge with this video:
Effects of the Practice
The first time I did this on my own, I found that around Sun Salutation 50, I hit a rhythm. It became meditative and I stepped outside myself a little bit. It was just me and the mat and the counting and the movements and the breath. I continue to have this experience, every time I come to it.
My own little ritual to call back the light.